Hitchhiking & Mountain Boarding Through Nicaragua
Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
34Trip End Jul 26, 2011
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It still felt like a crazy idea, to hitchhike this four hour stretch of road through a country we were at war with 20 years ago. But here we were, our motley crew of two Brits, a Canadian and an American stampeding down the streets of Esteli towards the main road, bags strapped on our backs, eager to stick our thumbs out and hail our first ride.
Forty one trucks had passed by the time we arrived to the outskirts of town. Here two roads rejoined after a brief separation while passing through Esteli, coming together to create the southbound Highway 1 that courses through Nicaragua. Someone, we imagined, would have to stop for hitchhikers here.
As we set down our Northface backpacks, I noticed another hitchhiker thirty meters away- proof that this is the ideal spot
As each open-bed truck passed, he glared down the driver and mumbled to himself in his native Spanish, probably asking what harm it would do to pick up this poor hitchhiker.
Compelled by the automatic connection among travelers, I greeted him and asked, “Por cuanto tiempo usted estaba aqui?” wondering how long he had been here.
“Ya paso veinte minutos.” Twenty minutes he told me, going on to belittle each and every truck that had passed without picking him up.
I asked if that was a long time, and he said, frankly, “No, antes habia esperado por mas de una hora.” Explaining to me that he has waited over an hour before.
We let this statement loom over us, like the gray skies that were showing hints of rain
“Vamos a ver.” We will see, I told him, attempting to remain positive, as I watched the 53rd open-bed truck pass by.
I rejoined Mark, Debs and Chris and shared with them the news the local shared. Where I was just standing, a silver Toyota 4-Runner stopped to pick up a young girl, and the local man implored for a free lift, seizing the opportunity to appeal to a stagnant vehicle. A grin lit up his face and he eagerly jumped in the back of the truck. Not ready to waste our chance, I ran to the truck before it took off and asked if we could also hitch a ride towards leon.
They said they will take us to San Isidro. Not as quickly or coolly as we wanted, we tossed our bags into the back of the truck and the five of us were now heading south.
Roberto Pinoya, our new travel companion, is traveling from Tampunoca to Ampuja to visit his sickly brother. We tried to speak a bit about his work as a carpenter, and the weather in his home town, but the conversation always steered back towards his anxiety on finding a ride to the next town
There was no need to ask why he didn't take the local chicken bus, but I'm sure he would have liked to know what us four well-equipped travelers were doing hitching a ride, considering that for only 100 Cordobas ($5) we could cover the four hour bus ride to Leon.
After passing San Isidro, the truck stopped at a T-intersection in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a fruit stand and a bus to Leon waiting for us. Roberto Pinoya stayed in the truck. We gave him a two dollar gift that would save him hours of trouble finding his way to see his sick brother.
Three Canadians and an American dropped off at that T-intersection would have nearly always taken the direct bus to Leon, so the driver was at some dismay when we told him to leave without us. Soon after, we found ourselves second guessing the decision, as no trucks had passed in the ten minutes we stood there after the bus left. I imagined what Roberto Pinoya would think of us now; these four gringos who pass up an easily affordable ride to their final destination, considering he may spend hours standing curb-side to save that same dollar
Then two trucks passed. Our optimism came crashing down both times at the mercy of two different hand gestures. The first driver gave us the 'point ahead', as if to signal something in the distance. The second driver signaled with a vertical twirling of his finger, the 'circle around', which may have meant he was turning around soon. We attempted to decipher both signals, but came to the simple conclusion that neither meant 'I'm going to pick you up."
Standing on this lifeless road with the sun burning down on us, our patience slowly withered. We dug into Debs' giant bag of Cheetoh's Puffs like a recently dumped teenager digging into Double Chocolate Chunk ice cream. We contemplated throwing out our plans and just taking the next bus, despite our original 'no buses allowed' attitude.
I had just arrived at the tree-line for a pit stop when I heard engines roaring in the distance and coming to a halt near the intersection
The truck bed was flat and completely empty, yes, but getting on the back of an 18-wheeler with nothing to hold on to felt like a ridiculous plan. But we trusted the driver's direction, and soon piled on to the back-- a bit smoother than last time. As we gained speed, I anticipated the moment when we would have to strap ourselves down to negate the wind tunnel conditions. Those conditions, however, never came.
The ride was perfect. We had a view like never before: nearly 360 degrees of green countryside dotted by sporadic cloud cover and vacas grazing along the riverside, with mountains and volcanoes lining the horizon. Aside from a stop to pick up clay piggie banks in Reinogas, we layed sprawled out with the wind keeping us cool under the Nicaraguan sky for the two hour journey. At one point, there was a small rain shower and the driver went out of his way to stop and ask us if we wanted to come inside
The majority of the locals along the road side greeted us with a confused grin and a quick wave, which turned into a smile when we waved back, but not all had the same sentiment as our friendly driver. Four groups of kids, after seeing us on the truck bed, turned around and flipped us off in unison, while yelling what I'm sure were Spanish vulgarities. This reaction perplexed us, to say the least, but we were at least glad we weren't stopping until the turn for Leon.
At the start of our final leg, the driver dropped us off and we thanked him immensely. Watching the truck, and ultimate road trip vehicle, leave was like saying goodbye to Grandma after a spoiled weekend away from home.
The rain clouds mounted as we waited at the corner for the next truck. Then the rain came. Nine trucks passed us with little regard for these crazy travelers standing in the rain, until we got another familiar signal: the 'circle around'. We knew what that meant. But then, five minutes later, the same truck came back and picked us up. We piled into the bed, this time like experts, and began our final leg into Leon
The rain hit us hard, but it didn't matter. We hiked the last six blocks from the center of town to our hostel with smiles on our faces. We had successfully hitchhiked this four hour stretch. I thought about Roberto Pinoya, and imagined him enjoying the comfort of the bus, ready to see his brother and family in small-town Nicaragua.
After settling into Big Foot Hostel, we set out to do what Leon is all about: Volcano Boarding. For $28, we could join the daily trip our hostel makes to Cerro Negro, the paint black volcano nestled just below Volcan San Cristobal and Volcan Telica. Cerro Negro, at only 400 meters high, is famously known at our hostel for the volcano where speed records are broken, skin and bones as well.
The volcano had a recent victim. A 19-year old Swedish girl named Johanna went with Big Foot Hostel for the Volcano Boarding trip about four days before we arrived
Big Foot Hostel is known for these speed records. They have special made volcano-riding boards that have replaceable bottoms which allow minimal friction, and maximum speed. At the bottom of the hill, the tour operator records the riders speed, with the incentive of getting your name on the board at the front of the hostel. Top speed in the week November 16th, 2010: 84kmh (52mph).
We ended up choosing a tour group called Quetzal Trekkers. Not because we were afraid of these top-quality boards, but because for two dollars more we received a t-shirt, lunch, two trips up and down the volcano (as opposed to all other groups' only one ride) and the proceeds of the trip went to the poor adolescents of Leon.
Quetzal Trekkers is a completely volunteer organization, and the inexperience showed as we got lost on the way to the volcano the next morning, causing an hour and a half delay on a normally forty-five minute ride. But we finally arrived at the Cerro Negro, and I must admit, I was nervous. After the damage I had seen this volcano do, and what seemed like a nearly vertical slope from the base, I wondered how there weren't more injuries.
The hike to the summit of this active volcano took only an hour
More recently, three other craters had been made, creating a line from the highest point. From the top, we could see a flood of black volcanic rock below us that had spilled out of the crater years before, but also revealed how high this ride down would be.
"One hour up, two minutes down," Eric, our tour guide, explained.
Anxiously, we put on our protective gear: a yellow jump-suit tucked into our socks, goggles, and gloves. We had hoped to ride down like snowboards, but the small rocks make it nearly impossible to carve, so riding like a sled was recommended.
"How do we brake?" Someone asked
We were told to just put our feet out to slow ourselves down, all else was up to gravity.
We dropped in one at a time. We started slow, but after 100 meters the grade increased and we gained speed. Negotiating bumps with dust and volcanic ash flying into your eye was no easy task, but after about two minutes everyone made it safely to the bottom, which almost felt too slow. Our boards weren't the same caliber as those at Big Foot Hostel, so we decided no braking would be necessary for the next one, and a race would determine the true Volcano Boarder.
We took a slightly different route to see another crater on the second hike, and this time Cerro Negro had a different ambiance about it. Maybe it was the fact that all the other tour groups had left, leaving us alone on this active volcano, or maybe it was the race at the forefront of our minds.
We decided the losers would each have to buy the winner a beer, to add to the drama. At the starting point for this last ride, and quite possibly the biggest race of our lives, the winds increased, the sulfuric gases thickened, and the tension was so thick our goggles fogged
The suspense is running high this beautiful sunny afternoon in Leon, Nicaragua. Eric is setting the racers in their positions and the race should start momentarily. From the racers' right to left we have Chris 'Westy' West, Garrett 'Roy' Getschow and Marshal 'Mark' Chupa. You can see it in their eyes that this race means something to these boys. They have gained the experience from their first ride to make this a truly inspirational race.
Oh, here we are, it looks like we are about to begin.
And they're off. It looks like Westy got a good start from his right position and has an early lead. Mark is just behind Westy, and Roy seems to have lost grip of his handle early on and is off to a slow start. They are gaining speed quickly and Westy is maintaining his good form. Westy seems to be separating from the pack
Westy has just hit the increased slope and is gaining speed, he's maybe 60 yards behind Roy who is struggling to see with the dust from the front racers in his eyes. Westy is maintaining good form, only about 100 yards to go. If he manages to hold on those two beers are going to be all his. Mark has equaled speed with Westy, but the slow start has made it impossible to---
OH NO! Westy has lost it. I didn't see what happened but he wiped out and is scrambling to get back on his board. Mark is staying composed and narrowing the gap. Only 150 yards to go, this could be Mark's lucky day. Roy, still in the back must be asking for a miracle.
Oh! and there it is! Mark seems to have gone off track and slid out to the left. He's still on the board bus slowing down quickly. THIS COULD BE A MIRACLE! Roy is narrowing the gap from what was 50 yards to 30... 20... 10... and he's in front! I can't believe it!! Westy is back on the board and Mark is gaining speed again, only 20 yards behind Roy. This is coming down to the wire here ladies and gentleman
50 yards to go! 45! 40! Roy is really cruising now, maybe at the top speed we've seen all day. But he's entering the trickiest part of the race. The bumps may be too much for him! Oh no, he looks he might lose his balance! 25 yards to go! Oh no! There he goes! A vicious wipe out. I can't believe it! Roy is scrambling to get back on the board but Mark is narrowing the gap and Westy is only just behind him.
Roy's back on but Mark is only five yards behind and moving fast! Roy is weighed down with rocks from the spill and can't gain the speed, could this be it?! Can Mark maintain his composure?! Only 20 yards left! ...15....10! Westy isn't closing the gap, and Roy can't gain the speed! It could be, it could-- I think it will be! MARK HAS TAKEN IT!
WHAT AN AMAZING FINISH!!! I thought certainly Chris had it, then Mark, then Roy! Then with 25 yards left Roy has a huge spill when he had it in the bag! What drama we had here at Cerro Negro. What a race!
Here you are ladies and gentlemen
And he did. That night we celebrated in the heart of Leon by enjoying a live show followed by a parade of one band of drummers, one float and one group of dancers. Short, but still festive.
Two free beers that night would have made it a perfection.
“Well the good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I've started out for God knows where
I guess I'll know when I get there
I'm learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down”
-Tom Petty, “Learning to Fly”